Attending to the “Little Things” Can Make the Biggest Difference

In our many conversations with current and future college applicants, we continue to be struck by the extent to which young people are impervious to many of the subtle aspects of the application process. While their engagement with grades, scores, and résumés borders on the obsessive, they often overlook opportunities to address some of the little things that can make the biggest difference in a tight competition.

It is perhaps to be expected that students will be consumed with the “big stuff”—those aspects of their credentials that appear, at least to them, to be most visible and, therefore, of greatest consequence to decision-makers. After all, it will be the grades, scores, and so forth that put them on the “competitive playing fields” at the respective colleges of interest. Why not, then, strive to achieve at the highest level possible?

We hear the questions all the time. “Cranking out As in six AP classes will surely make the difference—won’t it?” And, “It can’t hurt to push my SAT super-score from 1510 to 1560—right?” These examples might seem “other-worldly” to most students, but you get the point. It seems that no effort should be spared to burnish the credentials as much as possible.

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Please understand, we don’t want to diminish the importance of performing to the best of one’s ability in any endeavor. As a college applicant, though, the accumulation of superior credentials will go for naught if you are not attentive to the seemingly insignificant aspects of your application. The following are details that, left unattended, can derail even the best of applications.

  • Application Preparation. Admission officers are eager to see whether your application reveals a clear image of someone worthy of admission. Will you be content to complete the requirements and hit the “send” button—in which case your credentials will appear as a random, shapeless collection of data? Or will you be purposeful in using each part of your application to “connect the dots” in telling your story?
  • Essay Development. The number of essays you will need to write will grow almost exponentially with the number of colleges to which you apply. At this time of the year, we see (and hear) growing evidence that fatigue is taking over the drafting process for many students and, with it, the tendency to settle for “good enough.” Do you really want “good enough” to represent you in this high-stakes process? Or will you do what it takes to make a good essay great?
  • Letters of Recommendation. The people who write on your behalf can really make a difference in your candidacy—if you let them! Too often students are content to hand letter of recommendation forms to willing teachers with little more than a quick “thanks.” It would be worth the investment of 30–45 minutes of your time to meet with your recommenders to make sure they understand your plans for college, the rationale behind the colleges you have chosen, and the key messages you hope to convey in your application. While you are at it, remind them of those “a-ha” moments you experienced in their classrooms. In doing so, you put them in a better position to help you.
  • Senior Year Academic Performance. Selective colleges are watching to see what you will do when you don’t think you have to do anything. It will be at precisely that time—when you don’t think anyone is watching—that they will make their decisions. What will your actions tell them about you?
  • Relationship Building. Do you want to be regarded as a stranger in the credential review? We wouldn’t. Admission officers tend to regard applicants who seemingly materialize out of thin air as “ghost applicants” and ticket them for the wait-list—or worse. Get on and stay on the radar screens of the regional recruiters for your area from the colleges to which you are applying. They are likely to be the first to review your application—and the last to have an opportunity to defend it. Respond to their emails and surveys. Contact them if you have thoughtful questions. Don’t give them reason to question the sincerity of your interest in attending.
  • Interview Opportunities. There is no such thing as a meaningless interview. If a college offers an interview with one of its admission staff, take it! This person is a decision-maker who can become an advocate for you on the admission committee. If a college offers an interview with a local alumnus, take it! While this person is not a decision-maker, it is the fact that you meet with them —not the substance of the interview—that can make a difference for your application.

As you enter into the application process, then, your attentiveness to these little things can make the biggest difference in the outcome of your applications. Be diligent about doing them well. Don’t give those reviewing your credentials a reason to say no.

Written by Peter Van Buskirk, Director of Student Advocacy

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